Atlanta: Kyle Busch preview

From a Happy Homecoming to Where it All Began Last Year HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (March 4, 2009) -- The roll started last March at Atlanta Motor Speedway and has continued right through last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There's no reason to ...

From a Happy Homecoming to Where it All Began Last Year

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (March 4, 2009) -- The roll started last March at Atlanta Motor Speedway and has continued right through last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There's no reason to think it's going to stop now.

One year ago, Kyle Busch was in just his fourth race as driver of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The flagship No. 18 car of JGR's stable had fallen on hard times and hadn't been to victory lane since November 2003, when Bobby Labonte won at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But once the checkered flag flew in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta on March 9, 2008, the No. 18 ship was pointed in the right direction as Busch led 173 of 325 laps to claim a historic victory.

The nostalgia certainly wasn't lost on Busch.

"The 18! The 18! The 18 is back at Atlanta," Busch screamed on the radio after scoring the win that ended a 147-race drought for the team. And perhaps no one was more emotional about seeing the No. 18 car in victory lane than current JGR Vice President of Competition Jimmy Makar, who was one of the original employees at JGR and the first crew chief of the No. 18 machine.

Throughout a nine-year span, Labonte and the No. 18 team racked up 21 Sprint Cup Series wins, along with a magical 2000 season that saw the Makar-led team bring home the championship in NASCAR's top series.

"Kyle Busch," Makar said on the radio as Busch crossed the finish line at Atlanta, "thank you for bringing the 18 back."

The 18 was most certainly back in 2008 as Busch, crew chief Steve Addington and the M&M's team racked up seven more wins in what became the season of rebirth for the 18 team and the breakout season for Busch.

The No. 18 returns to Atlanta this weekend for Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, and it does so coming off an equally emotional victory last week in the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas.

Busch, who raced Bandoleros, Legends and Late Model stock cars at The Bullring, located in the shadow of Las Vegas Motor Speedway behind turns one and two, conquered his hometown track by leading three times for 51 laps to win his first race of any type at the 1.5-mile oval.

It was a victory that the 2002 honors graduate of Las Vegas' Durango High Schooldesperately wanted on his racing resume. It also served warning to the rest of the Sprint Cup Series garage that the M&M's team's momentum of 2008 has carried right into 2009.

This weekend, Busch will look for his second Sprint Cup victory at Atlanta and, for that matter, his second Sprint Cup victory anywhere. All 13 of his wins have come at different racetracks, so a trip to the winner's circle would end an odd streak, but also inch him closer to another record: most wins before the age of 25.

Jeff Gordon holds the record for most Sprint Cup victories before turning 25, as he scored 15 wins by the time he hit the quarter-century mark. Busch, who does not turn 25 until May 2, 2010, is two wins away from tying Gordon and three from surpassing the four-time champion's mark.

There's a lot going on in Busch's racing career right now -- records, milestones, emotional victories -- and this week he returns to Atlanta, one year after his career got a big jump start.

KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:

Sunday's win at Las Vegas was a dream come true for you. Has it sunk in, yet?

"I don't know if it's set in, yet, or not. But it feels pretty good.I don't care when it sets in. It's cool. To go out there and to run a smooth race, and to have a shot at winning the race at the end of the race, is what it's all about. I watched Vegas being built from the ground up, and I remember when it wasn't anything but a gleam in Richie Clyne's eye -- all those guys who made that place happen."

What did it feel like to win in your hometown?

"It was awesome, just the feeling of a lifetime.The M&M's team does a phenomenal job for me. They're so great.They believe in me, they believe in (crew chief) Steve Addington, and that's the mixture we need.We're able to win races.We didn't have the best car Sunday, but I feel like I drove a smart race, anyway, and did what we needed to do.We worked on it all day and kept making it better."

It's hard to believe, but last week's victory was your first Sprint Cup win since August 2008 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. Was there anything you learned about yourself over that period that made you a better driver?

"I think to probably take the bad days a little easier.But I hate bad days.I'm still not going take them as easy as some should, especially like Saturday (in the Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas).We had a great car -- should have won that race, too.But, you know, Friday I could have thrown my helmet down and stomped away, told the guys great job, look at what we did (after the engine problem in practice).I just went in the hauler and let those guys go to work and do what they do best.I just kind of sat there and cooled off a little bit, watched the rest of practice to see if I could learn anything from watching guys on TV about practice, watching some different lines of what guys were doing in qualifying trim. I went out there and ran a Mark Martin-type line and ended up getting the pole there.That was pretty awesome to be able to do that.These guys made some good calls on what to do to the car to change it. But from last fall, yeah, we had some bad races.It's unfortunate we weren't able to capitalize on our great season and run in the Chase (for the Sprint Cup) the way we wanted to.Hopefully, we can build that back up here.I feel we've done a great job of that since Daytona.We didn't let Daytona haunt us. We went to California, ran a smart race and finished third.We went to Las Vegas, ran a smart race.We won the race.We weren't the best car at either place, but we were the best car in Daytona and I felt like we missed out there. This could have been a 1-3-1 season, thus far.It is what it is.All you do now is look ahead to Atlanta this weekend."

Is there satisfaction in the praise you're getting from the media and competitors for your driving abilities?

"Yeah, there is. You always like to be recognized in that area and not crucified in that area. It's fun to be able to go out there and race the way I race. Obviously, it's a good show for the fans and a good time for TV. We'll just keep it the way it is and, hopefully, be able to win."

You brought the 18 car back to victory lane for the first time in more than four years when you won in March 2008 at Atlanta. What stuck out about that day to you?

"It was really awesome to see all the 18 guys back in victory lane at Atlanta and enjoying the win. I remember the years of watching Bobby Labonte dominate at Atlanta and plenty of other places. To see the smile on everyone's face was great, especially (crew chief) Steve Addington and how excited he was about his first Cup win. And, of course, to get Toyota the win -- well, it just all meant so much."

You've had some success at Atlanta with three wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series along with your Sprint Cup win there last March. Does that mean you're really looking forward to going back to Atlanta?

"Atlanta definitely doesn't have much grip, but I still seem to like it. There are so many lines. You can run anywhere on the track, and I love that. Coming off turn two, if you're running the low line and start to slide up, you have a tendency to get sideways. But, otherwise, it's a really fun track. It's really a driver's track because, when you get about 40 laps on your tires, you really start to slide around and that can be a handful."

-credit: jgr

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing